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Funny Business

Ever watch the offbeat TV series Monk and wonder, How did they come up with that? For the answer, step into the writing laboratory of Madison’s Andy Breckman and his quirky crew.

Posted December 19, 2007 by Joel Keller

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It’s Wednesday, and Andy Breckman is getting anxious.The executive producer of Monk sits at the head of a conference table in the show’s Summit office, leg bobbing, pecking away on a laptop. Outfitted with wood paneling, pool and air hockey tables, and ratty sofas, the place suggests the headquarters of a low-budget 1970s political campaign crossed with a basement rec room. He and the writers are breaking down episode seven of the sixth season of the USA Network show, outlining each act. Things aren’t coming together in act three—so much so that act two, which they thought was done, is starting to fall apart, too.

“It feels like Monk is falling out of our Monk episode,” says writer and fellow executive producer Tom Scharpling.

“What if the cousin finds the DNA lab, then blows it up at the end of act two?” suggests writer Dan Dratch, brother of Rachel Dratch of Saturday Night Live.

The conversation drifts to sports, current events, and how many Emmy awards Monk has lost to David E. Kelley. Gently, Breckman guides the conversation back to the task. To him, at least, concentrating on fixing the outline is better than thinking about what could happen by the end of the night: He might have a pierced nipple.

As on every Wednesday, Breckman is scheduled to go from work to Jersey City to host his WFMU radio show, Seven Second Delay. The irreverent, hour-long show airs Wednesdays at 6 pm and features banter between Breckman and his broadcast partner, station manager Ken Freedman. But there’s a catch this week. Breckman and Freedman will be participating in the independent station’s annual fund-raising drive, and they’ve vowed that one of them will get his nipple pierced if they raise more than $21,000—even if it’s by just one cent.

In fund-raisers past, both men agreed to be tattooed if certain dollar goals were met. And they kept those promises. But this is a new level of invasiveness to which Breckman responds much like the obsessive-compulsive Adrian Monk—the prospect makes him squeamish. “I’m not looking forward to it,” he says.

There’s a lot of Andy Breckman in Adrian Monk. Though Breckman isn’t a neat freak and doesn’t suffer from a fear of germs, he is a man of habit and routine. If he could, he’d order the same meal from the same restaurant over and over. “I like this turkey club; why not eat it every day?” he says. He writes his outlines and scripts using an old DOS version of WordStar because he’s comfortable with the keystrokes and features. During the colder months, his outfit consists of a stained corduroy blazer over a wrinkled, unbuttoned shirt and T-shirt, and a pair of cargo pants.

But unlike Monk, Breckman is willing to shake things up in big ways. At 52 he is again a father to young children, thanks to a second marriage that started with an ad on an Internet dating site. He lives in the same Madison house where he lived with his first wife, but he and his current spouse, Beth Landau, have completely renovated it. And of course he’s willing—albeit reluctantly—to have a nipple pierced to help a good cause.

“How about we do a navel and an ear and then a nipple?”

Breckman is negotiating with Freedman by phone on the ride to WFMU. “You want to do that? Why don’t we leave it at all or nothing for the nipple and know we won’t make it?” He’s still worried about the piercing, but not so much that he won’t contribute to the station. He and Freedman discuss how long this year’s “Soak Andy” period should be (a specified number of minutes during which Breckman matches every pledge with an equal amount from his own pocket). On the air, he’ll make a fuss about how the listeners are taking him for all he’s worth, but he’s happy to do it.

At the station, about half an hour before Delay goes on the air, Breckman strides around the offices greeting staff and volunteers. His personality shifts a bit. “New Jersey Monthly’s doing a story about me. Me. Just me,” he tells Freedman. He’s getting into character. On Delay, he isn’t Andy Breckman, neurotic-but-friendly comedy writer; he’s Andy Breckman, arrogant foil to Freedman’s nice guy. His job is to be a funny jerk, and he plays the role to the hilt.

“FMU’s perfect because it’s populated by losers,” Freedman says facetiously, “so Andy can use them as props and not be really concerned about their feelings or anything like that.” But Freedman knows the pledge drive is a good opportunity for the “losers” and “hippies” to get their revenge on Breckman—who jokes with them year round and teases them in his “funny jerk” persona—as he sweats through deals like the nipple-piercing thing.

During the show, Breckman good-naturedly refers to the pledge volunteers as “winged monkeys” and “phone slaves.” He gives the setup to “lonely hippie” jokes, prompting people to call in and make a pledge in order to get the punch lines. He tries to talk Freedman down to a shorter “Soak Andy” segment, and even though Freedman playfully chides Breckman about his extensive house renovation, they ultimately agree to a four-minute soaking period. During that time, Breckman insults every person who calls in except for his wife, Beth, who makes a pledge just to get his goat. In the end, he gets soaked for about $4,000, which is around the amount he was going to contribute, anyway.

With pledges inching closer to the $21,000 goal, Breckman eyeballs a local tattoo and piercing artist named Ernie, who is sitting in the room, just dying to poke a hole in the abrasive host. “Come on, guys, let me stab this guy,” Ernie says on the air after enduring a series of Breckman’s insults.

Alas, the piercing never materializes because the show falls short of the fund-raising goal. On the road back from the station, a relieved Breckman jokes about Ernie while talking to his wife by cell phone. “He was really scary looking. And he wanted me bad. With a big needle… I would’ve just been petrified,” he says.

Seven Second Delay debuted in 1992; Breckman started with a different partner until Freedman joined the show a couple of years later. It’s a creative outlet for him, satisfying a desire that dates back to his years as a writer and performer of comedic folk songs. “This radio show scratches that itch once a week,” he says. In fact, the itch is scratched so well that he hasn’t performed folk music in about ten years. “I don’t even have calluses on my fingers anymore.”

Breckman didn’t set out to be a comedy writer, although he was always one of those guys who quietly goofed around in the back of the class. He grew up in Haddonfield, as the oldest of three children in a decidedly middle-class Jewish family. (His sister, Risa, 50, lives in Millburn, while brother David, 41, lives in Los Angeles and writes for Monk.) Breckman’s father, Jack, was an engineer, and his mother, Marcia, was a housewife who performed regularly in community theater. One of his earliest memories is of losing what he thought was a key first-grade election. “The class voted on who was the class clown. Jack Ranonowski was the kid they voted for, and  I remember sitting there being very jealous that I wasn’t the class clown. I remember wanting it badly.”

In grammar school, Breckman started reading mysteries, admiring the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, John D. MacDonald, and other authors of “solvable” mysteries. He was a big fan of Columbo, among other traditional mystery series. “In a way, it’s similar to comedy writing,” his other love, he says. “It’s puzzles and puzzle solving. Very logical.”

By high school, his grades started slipping because he was more into doodling and making home movies than studying. His parents sent him to a Quaker school in Moorestown, which helped him focus for a while. But he was asked to leave in the eleventh grade, mostly for cutting classes. “I went to Philadelphia a lot to see movies,” he says.

While Breckman was finishing Haddonfield High, his father died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 51. After graduating the next summer, Breckman went to Boston University but again grew restless, and one day during freshman year just stopped going to class. “I had a test scheduled for later that day,” he recalls. “I woke up and just decided to drop out.  I just turned off my alarm, went back to sleep, and I was on my way.”

He decided to become a full-time musician, playing the comic songs he had been performing at local clubs while in college. As a student of comedy from an early age, Breckman cites influence from Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Albert Brooks, and James L. Brooks. Musically, he is a fan and product of 1960s and 1970s singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and James Taylor.

“The sillier novelty songs never appealed to me,” he says. “Randy Newman and Loudon Wainwright are serious songwriters, but they use humor as a way to build their song and convey their message.”

After Breckman dropped out, his mother cut off his financial support, for which he is grateful to this day. “Now I can say everything I have, I’ve earned. I really started with zero,” he says. Moving to New York City, he took menial jobs while writing and performing ditties such as “Where is Rabbi Finkleman?” and “The Cheese Stands Alone.”

Breckman met his first wife, Mary, at a now defunct New York club called Folk City when he was 21. It was open mic night—he was performing and she was watching, trying to get up the nerve to take the stage herself. He asked Mary to keep an eye on a tape recorder he used to record his set. He still has the tape—and can hear her laughing on it. “It was a very sweet way to meet,” he says. The two were married four years later.

Soon after, he got a manager and started landing gigs opening for national artists like Don McLean. “I loved living in the city,” he says. “My plan was to be… you know, Randy Newman was my idol,  Loudon Wainwright, guys like that.”

That exposure led to a job writing funny songs for an NBC show for teens called Hot Hero Sandwich. He ended up writing sketches there as well. That brought him to the attention of Late Night with David Letterman, where he wrote many of the conceptual comedy segments in the show’s first two seasons. Remember the bit in which Paul Shaffer prepares for the show from inside his own head, Being John Malkovich-style? That was Breckman.

“I admire Letterman so much,” Breckman says. “I owe him so much. It was my first real grown-up job. And maybe I’ve just embraced his attitude towards show business. Bemused skepticism.” He soon gave up singing and concentrated on writing full time.

From Letterman, Breckman went on to write for Saturday Night Live from 1981 to 1987. During the late ’80s and most of the ’90s, he wrote screenplays; the best known were the 1994 romantic comedy I.Q., set in Princeton, with Walter Matthau as Einstein, and the 2001 chase comedy Rat Race. The overhauls that movie screenplays went through often left Breckman dissatisfied with the outcome. But as a veteran writer, he knows heartburn comes with the territory.

“I used to say that my deal with Hollywood appeared to be that I would get a very nice check from them a couple times a year, and in exchange, they would humiliate me nationally every two years,” Breckman says.

When he was approached by producer David Hoberman with a concept for a show about a cop with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Breckman signed on in a heartbeat.

“It was the first time anyone had asked me to write a mystery,” he says.  “I’d been a comedy guy from the start.  So it was a chance finally to use both my passions and to fuse them into one project. It was very exciting to me.” Monk was born, eventually reaching the USA Network after ABC turned it down.

“This is Green Hill Road in Madison. Welcome home,” Breckman says as he pulls into his driveway after a Monday session at the Monk office. While he and the writers work at the office only from noon until about 6 pm, they put in long hours writing Monk scripts at home. Breckman himself stays up until 3 am every night, rewriting each script to make sure it sounds like a Monk episode.

Despite the hours and the rewrites, the system seems to work. “Everybody’s kind of low-key and relaxed; it’s just not a contentious office,” says Scharpling. “I think that comes from him.”

Breckman has lived in Madison for 24 years, the last nineteen in this house. Breckman and his first wife, Mary, raised their three children here—Josh, 24, Rachel, 22, and Julie, 19. Being a creature of habit, he bought out Mary’s half of the house after they divorced, then began renovating it soon after marrying Beth, now 40, in 2004.

“So for me, I feel like I’ve bought this house three times. I feel like that’s my life now, buying this house,” he says. He and Beth live there with their children, Molly, 2, and Evan, who was born in 2006. Mary, with whom Beth and Breckman are still friends, lives up the street, though she’s thinking of moving to Michigan in the near future.

When Beth is told how the Monk writers see the nice-guy version of her husband, she takes the opportunity to set the record straight. “Oh, God,” she says, rolling her eyes. “He does not get busted enough. Everybody at work, they’re like ‘Ooohhh.’ People kiss his ass way too much.”

She is sitting on the sunporch and joking about how few people see both the nice-guy and funny-jerk sides of her husband. When Breckman comes in holding their son, Evan, she turns to him. “I guess Tom Scharpling gives him a little bit of a hard time, but when we go to L.A…. The fact is, he prefers to eat every day at three in the afternoon in Summit. It drives his writing staff crazy.”

“But they do [have a say],” Breckman stammers. “They’re very open about [saying], ‘Hey, I’m hungry.’ You think I don’t let them say, ‘I’m hungry?’ You’re describing some sort of Amistad, middle-voyage slave ship. They can say they’re hungry.”

If Nora Ephron and Woody Allen collaborated on a romantic comedy, they might come up with the story of how Breckman and Beth met. In early 2003, while he was in the middle of his divorce, Breckman placed an ad on Nerve.com with no picture and only the bare minimum of information. The day he came across Beth’s profile, he had just come back from a particularly painful asset allocation meeting with the divorce lawyers. He was enchanted by her photo and profile, so he sent a funny note that was self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing at the same time, giving his writing credits but also being very frank about his divorce:

“I’m 47. Separated. VERY separated. In fact, the lawyers are meeting on Friday to finalize the divorce. It should be fun. You wanna come? You could be my date.”

Beth, a 35-year-old documentary producer living in New York, fell for Breckman’s sense of humor as well as his sensitivity. “He asked me for a date as soon as our first date was over. He just kind of put his heart on his sleeve.” After their second date, she even listened to Delay and enjoyed every second. They were  hooked on each other. Less than two years later, they wed in a ceremony conducted by Breckman’s old friend, Jerry Zucker, who directed Rat Race.

In many ways, they are polar opposites. She’s a world traveler who lived in Japan for a time, while he hates flying to L.A. once a month for Monk; she eats all sorts of foods, while he eats the same thing every day; she’s city, he’s suburbs. But their chemistry is undeniable. She finds creative ways to needle her husband, like the pledge to WFMU.

While neither Breckman nor Beth  figured they’d be living this life when that first Nerve e-mail arrived, Breckman seems to be especially happy with the way things turned out. Because his dad died so young, he says, “My plan for years was to die young. I was kind of counting on it. But that plan has been scratched.”

In his basement screening room, dubbed the Madison Halfplex, Breckman ruminates on the famous people he met while working on Late Night. “All these people I admired would come through the NBC building to do the show, and I would  meet them and hang out with them,” he relates. “I wasn’t very impressed with them. They all seemed very sad, actually, and troubled. I didn’t really envy them. A lot of them had real serious problems.”

The Halfplex reveals more of its owner’s obsessiveness: Breckman enjoys watching movies so much that he has thousands of DVDs and laser discs on a multitude of shelves around his basement. But, as he watches the Pixar movie Cars on the projection screen, it’s easy to see why this is his haven. While Breckman has never been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, watching him in constant movement for two days suggests a bee flitting from flower to nectar-rich flower. He focuses when it counts, however, especially in front of his outmoded version of WordStar, whipping Monk scripts into shape for production.

The Halfplex is the only place where he sits perfectly still. Hands tented over his mouth, he watches Cars, marveling at the genius of the animation. “Isn’t this beautiful, this artwork?” he asks.


Ink-Stained Kvetches

A TV scriptwriting team is like a food chain in which everything is written and rewritten until it meets the approval of the head writer, who may just rewrite it again. This takes getting used to. “Part of what makes writing fun is that it comes out of you, and there’s a sense of ownership of it,” says Monk writer Hy Conrad. “Some of that is missed a little.”

But only a little. The Monk writers are a diverse lot, and each makes a distinctive contribution. Conrad, for example, is a published mystery novelist adept in crime plot mechanics. “Hy is our clue machine, our clue maven,” says Andy Breckman, the executive producer and head writer. Dan Dratch worked in sketch comedy (The Chris Rock Show); Joe Toplyn wrote for sitcoms (Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper) as well as for David Letterman and Jay Leno; Tom Scharpling co-hosts his own weekly free-form radio show on WFMU. Junior staffers include Sal Savo, the script coordinator; Justin Brenneman, the writers’ office coordinator; and production assistant Kevin Albright.

Breckman lets his writers take full credit for the final script, even when the material has been honed and rehoned. “He’s not like an Aaron Sorkin who insists on having his name on everything,” says Conrad.

 “He knows what he wants,” says Toplyn, so “ we tend to have reasonable hours, because we don’t spend a lot of time trying to decide what to do.”


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